*During the current hiatus of collegiate sport action, UChicago Athletics is running a story series called “Maroon Moments”, which will highlight some of the top performances and most pivotal contests from the last two years across all Maroon athletic teams.
CHICAGO – As the University of Chicago volleyball team departed for Atlanta in early October 2019, the Maroons were in the midst of a historic roll. Winners of 13-straight matches, the Maroons owned a No. 3 ranking in the national poll while possessing an elite combination of dangerous offense and swarming defense.
The UAA Round Robin #2 would be hosted by Emory University. Brandeis University and No. 14-ranked Carnegie Mellon University would be on the docket during Sunday action. UChicago Head Coach Sharon Dingman knew her team was riding high and feeling confident going into every match. The challenge would be managing the emotions attached to the all-important UAA conference bouts.
“We were in a really good place – we had a very clear understanding of who we were, why we win, areas that needed to get better,” Dingman said. “We were serving the ball well and playing great defense. [Setter] Emma [Griffith] was running the offense at a high level.”
In the second set versus Brandeis, UChicago’s mettle was tested. The Maroons fell behind 22-8 as rallies kept going against them. It appeared the set would be lost, adding pressure to the impending third set.
Instead, UChicago completely flipped the script with an epic comeback to grab the second set and then complete a 3-0 sweep of Brandeis.
The October 6 bout looked to be a mismatch on paper. The Maroons were firing on all cylinders while the Judges owned a 4-11 record at that point of the season. The opening set played out in that fashion – UChicago ripped off nine-straight points to seize control, while Brandeis committed twice as many errors as kills in the set. The score settled at 25-14.
However, the second set threw a curveball at the Maroon momentum. The Judges won eight-straight points to go up 9-2. As play progressed, the trend only strengthened – 13-5 soon became 19-8. The underdogs suddenly appeared to be giant slayers.
“Brandeis was playing great,” said Dingman. “They were doing to us what we did to teams – frustrating our hitters by digging everything. They were serving tough and getting us out of system. They really frustrated us. I called a timeout when it was 8-18 and told the team I didn’t know if we could come back but we should try – what other option did we have? After the timeout, Brandeis scored four more points before we sided out.”
Despite staring at a 22-8 deficit, hope was not dead. UChicago did not phone in the set in an effort to move on to the next and get the bad taste out of its mouth. The squad doubled down on its resilience and grittiness instead.
Junior outside hitter Fredericka Paulson got things rolling by blasting three-consecutive kills. That allowed junior libero Katherine Wilson to step up to the service line and deliver. With each passing point, the deficit shrunk. UChicago had found its gear and was executing in all phases.
Soon enough, the improbable had happened – the set was tied 22-22 thanks to 14-straight points by the Maroons. Paulson and fellow junior outside hitter Mikayla Hardy were big contributors with a combined nine kills during that streak.
“We were steadfast in our belief that we could come back,” Dingman said. “We trusted everyone would do their job – Katherine would serve really well, Emma would make great sets and correct choices, the hitters would do their jobs. We started to execute at a high level. Katherine served a few aces, we were ball handling well, Emma was setting like Emma and we were getting kills. It was great because it didn’t happen from Brandeis making errors; it happened by us scoring our own points.”
The epic rally would be rendered moot, however, if UChicago didn’t finish strong. Brandeis owned a set point at 24-23 to put the pressure back on the Maroons to deliver. Hardy promptly tied it with a kill at 24-24. Two kills later – courtesy of senior outside hitter Anne Marie Stifter – and the set was theirs.
Set three saw the Maroons fully back to their usual dominance. The hitters posted a .306 attack percentage in the set to close out the 3-0 sweep (25-14, 26-24, 25-19).
The final statistics saw the victors hit .274 as a team compared to .059 by the Judges. Paulson posted a team-high 17 kills with nine digs while Hardy tallied 12 kills and nine digs of her own. Griffith handed out 37 assists and collected 11 digs. Wilson served four aces and totaled 17 digs. Stifter racked up 15 digs and six kills.
Later that afternoon, the Maroons would defeat Carnegie Mellon by a 3-1 margin (25-20, 23-25, 25-17, 25-20).
The lesson of the day was absorbed and took root. The Maroons knew they had to prepare and compete against every opponent the same – rank didn’t matter. They also learned plenty about themselves as well.
“We knew we had a lot of grit, but that match brought out another level of grit we hadn’t seen,” Dingman said. “The trust we all had in each other was critical to carry us through trying times that were ahead of us. We learned about paying attention to who is in front of us and not looking back, sideways or ahead – look at who is in front of you.”
UChicago would go on to complete a historic 2019 campaign. The squad posted a final record of 28-4 which included a 23-match winning streak. The Maroons were ranked No. 1 in the national coaches poll during the regular season, set a new school record for winning percentage (.875) and advanced to the third round of the NCAA Championship for the first time in program history.